Meritocracy, the American Dream, and Other Fairy Tales

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For the inaugural CC, the Millennial Fellows explore how their personal perspectives influence the policies they're interested in. 

Heat on the pavement rises up in the dark, and with every step I take away from my workplace it meets me like a warm blanket, telling me it’s time to sleep, wake up, and do it all again. Sweaty from the heat or the hard work, I slump into the bench and wait for the Caltrain. Predictably delayed, the train would be another hour. My exhaustion runs out of patience and calls an Uber.

Five minutes later, Frank pulls up in his Chevy listening to some country song about beer and backroads at a polite volume. My eyelids droop a bit and my head hurts, but one glance at my Uber rating… 4.78 shoot… and now I have to be polite or that score’s going to plummet. So, I hop in, gently close the door, smile and ask him if he can queue up “Wagon Wheel.”

That wins big points with Frank, because now he sees us as kindred spirits joined by country music. He takes this gesture as a fast track to friendship and speaks for minutes or days like his words are my words. He assumes that I too drink a glass of milk at dinner every night with my family and moved out to the ‘burbs after retiring from a cushy tech job because the city was too loud. He says Silicon Valley is a great place for “people like us, you know… hard-working Americans.”

What does that even mean to an old white man and a biracial brown girl? I wonder if he ever faced the same issues I worry about in Silicon Valley, before he retired while he worked in Tech. Like did men constantly talk over him or flirt with him at networking events instead of listening to his business pitches? I wonder if he was ever rent burdened or looking for cheap dental care, or if he ever had to turn down a promotion to take time off for his kids. I don’t feel like asking, so I let him go on.

“So, do you go to high school around here?” Frank swung right then drove up the street at exactly the speed limit.

“Uh, I work here... for the city kind of.” That’s what I said, but what I meant was, “Is it socially appropriate for me to put in headphones and surf Facebook yet?” I swear if this Frank guy hits me with the what-do-you---

“What do you do?” He asked innocently enough but the question hit me over the head, because after a 12 hour day of working, planning, networking, and delivering the same speech over and over again I could not and would not explain myself to another stranger. So I water down the elevator pitch and lob it over.

“I work on education, health, and engagement programs for the local Spanish speaking immigrant and long-term resident community,” my lips mumbled through as I braced myself for his opinion. Everyone has an opinion on this kind of thing.

“That’s important work. It’s just such a shame how little Mexican women care about their kid’s health and education. What we should be doing is getting them to learn English before letting them spend all our taxes on tacos and tickets to Disneyland.” The funny thing is, well-intentioned Frank wasn’t the only person who has ever said this to me.

First of all, tacos are delicious.

But that aside, I am constantly affronted with rhetorical battering rams of how people of color just need to work harder, adjust their priorities, and stop complaining. If only they did this they’d be well off, a simple fast-food panacea. But, even if we overhauled all of our social and economic policies to be inclusive and supportive of low-income people of color today, there would still be hundreds of years of systemic oppression to counteract.

That’s why social policy, gender equality, and economic and racial justice matters: because meritocracy is a total lie. So many people casually use the American Dream™ as an excuse to justify their privilege and de-legitimize the struggles of vulnerable yet resilient populations.

If the water is free in America for everyone, then it’d be so easy to tend and grow a money tree, simple. But in reality, success or even survival here is definitely about climbing your family’s tree. Some people get ladders and others get rope, and it’s not always up to you whether you reach the top or hang. But honestly, how am I going to explain structural inequity in the next five minutes to an Uber driver that thinks Disneyland accepts SNAP benefits.

Also, it’s not like I was planning on jumping out of the car Michelle-Rodriguez-from-Fast-and-the-Furious style, but part of me had already punched through the window and ran halfway down the street screaming, “Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!” blasting my snowflake sensitivities into the air like a blizzard. Unproductive.

So I sat. And I listened. And I nodded. And I heard him. Still biased, but not dangerous.

And then I responded ranted.

“First of all, tacos are delicious.” I’m never not going to speak my truth. “Second of all, why do women of color always have to prove to others they care about their lives and their families?”

“And, I don’t have an answer for a lot of these things, but I do have a lot of questions. Like, how can a mother participate in her kid’s education when all the assignments and meetings are in a foreign tongue? What if she spends half her day underpaid and the other half unpaid--doing work at home or for other’s homes, constantly worrying about feeding her kid? Or what if a dad can’t be involved because he’s working two jobs under the table, and the rent keeps unreasonably going up? What if the kid has no parents and is just trying to survive on their own, holding on to the hope that education might help them establish wealth and security? How come when a white family is poor or uneducated, it’s always someone else’s fault: America, the economy, immigrants taking jobs, but when any minority family is poor it’s because they don’t care? Maybe if--”

Frank interrupted, “Nah, I don’t care if you’re brown, white, or blue, if you can’t take care of yourself you don’t deserve help.”

So naturally, the only outcome of this conversation is my ever-sinking Uber rating. My phone is dead, the child lock is on, and we are still four miles from my house.

Author:

Roselyn Miller is a Millennial Public Policy Fellow for New America’s Better Life Lab. Miller, a Long Beach, Calif. native with roots in the Bay Area, holds a bachelor of arts in anthropology from Stanford University.